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Constructive Community

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Amanda and Merrill

- Amanda


Community is a word that gets tossed around a lot online. Everyone wants to be part of an Internet community: it's reassuring to feel connected to a human group in a vast digital space. Though community, like style, isn’t something you can fabricate, many sites try to gin it up. The most glaring indicator of such astroturfing is a “community” button in the main navigation, because community should be ubiquitous, not relegated to its own pen. "Community managers” are another red flag: it means the administrators view community as something that needs to be managed from on high -- what if our users don’t represent our brand? -- rather than something that they, too, participate in.

When we launched FOOD52, we weren't trying to create a community. We wanted to build a business but we weren’t yet sure exactly what shape it would take: all we knew is that we'd start building it around a great crowd-sourced cookbook. What we found, in a matter of weeks, was that a community of devoted home cooks swiftly and organically arose. People were hanging out, sharing ideas, contributing to the book, and shaping the content and tone of the site. They helped each other out with cooking questions, gently let newcomers in on the culture of the site, and chatted directly with us. A lot. And it was they -- you! -- who helped us figure out what the business would become.

We believe in communities that have a strong aesthetic and voice, but a welcoming demeanor. Communities without direction -- without a sense of common purpose -- flail and fail. It's communities with a purpose, ones you might call “constructive communities," that thrive (like Kickstarter). Our purpose, it's become clear, is to connect people who love food -- because eating well matters to us. As the site builds community, the community builds the site.

Two years in, here's what the FOOD52 community has done together: we've just finished our second book, and are now working on an iPad app. We’ve created a trove of community-vetted recipes, and launched a Hotline so people in a cooking dilemma can get fast answers from experienced home cooks. One night recently, we helped a cook who ran into trouble with seized chocolate and coached her through a failing semifreddo. A community-powered iPhone app for the Hotline is also in the works.

   On a Farm in Indiana On a Farm in Indiana

We've also plucked some of our leading columnists from our own ranks, including Tom Hirschfeld, who writes about growing his own food on his farm in Indiana, and an upcoming columnist (spoiler alert!) who's going to write about urban gardening.

FOOD52ers have been getting together offline since we launched. There are more than 40 member-hosted potluck parties happening around the country (and even one being held as far away as Nigeria) to celebrate the launch of our first cookbook later this month. On an overcast day this August, one of our members, Maria Raynal, gathered more than a dozen FOOD52ers to help out Detroit Dirt with this composting project.

Detroit Dirt

That sort of grassroots entrepreneurship makes Merrill and me proud. Maybe it’s our Yankee side, but we aren’t ones for idle chit-chat. We like to make, build, create. We joke that we are the hosts, curators, and occasional disciplinarians of FOOD52 – like French guardians, we live on the property we take care of. We don’t just build the site, we participate in every aspect as community members. It’s the first site we visit when we wake up, and the last one we sign off of before bed.

Six months ago, we decided it was time to redesign our site to better take advantage of what our community had become – and to more clearly define the business we were building. We had been studying how our community used the site, where people congregated, who connected with whom. While many community sites are static and organized by topic, the beauty of FOOD52, it seemed to us, was that people were immediately able look around to see what’s new, who's there and which conversational group or activity to join.

Brooklyn Street

Photo by TrespassersWill, Flickr

We wanted to accentuate that sense of transparency and boundless opportunity. The metaphor we had in mind was a thriving city street – with interesting people buzzing about, appealing storefronts and small visual enticements at every turn. In one visit, you should be able to find the content you want, see what recipes have gotten people talking, who to trust and follow, what other cooks are up to, and where there are clusters of activity. You should come to FOOD52 (or any social site, really) and feel immersed in a lively and productive metropolis. Discovery and inspiration should be the norm.

You should also know the guardians – Merrill, me, and our team – are there with you. We should be looking after the site, and using it alongside you, too.

So that's what we set out to build. There is a period when city crews are tearing up the street, when the plumbing doesn't work, and the jackhammers are annoying -- that would be now. Sorry! Despite it all, FOOD52 is now a vibrant and ever-changing street for you to explore, with the community’s curated content resting atop it all. We found ways for the many great cooks hidden inside the old site to appear out in the open. We let people’s own engagement with the content dictate what appears on the storefronts – the home page and other main pages. We built structures that would handsomely frame our beautiful, curated photography and the work of our smart columnists and editors. We're celebrating the community and all who take part in it. And Merrill and I and our small team are there, too, asking our own Hotline questions, planning contest themes, curating news, putting together special offers for you in the Shop, and talking with you.

We have re-imagined what a food community should look like. Despite the commotion and confusion that inevitably accompanies a bold new project, we believe – just as we believed when we launched FOOD52 – that what we're doing is worth breaking ground for.

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